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DISCOVERING THE
AZORES
by Robert Adams

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Ever since I can remember, it had been a dream of mine to one day visit the Azores, especially the island where my grandmother was born. As a young writer with an insatiable curiosity to learn about everything, I made it a point to interview almost everyone I met, but my most enjoyable moments were spent recording conversations with Nana. She would patiently answer each and every question I had, recounting her childhood experiences on the island of Pico where she lived until coming to America at the age of fourteen. I was mesmerized by her recollections of life in the Azores as the youngest child growing up in a small house with ten sisters and one brother. Watching her face and looking into her eyes, I was overwhelmed by the emotions she felt as she relived her childhood experiences.

Our flight on SATA Airlines (www.sata.pt) from Boston to the island of São Miguel takes just four hours and 45 minutes. After a short layover, we board another flight for Pico. The moment our small plane touches down, my black and white visions of a storm tossed island existing in the shadow of a dormant volcano suddenly seem out of sync with reality. Nana’s island with no electricity, telephones, or cars, now boasts most of the modern amenities found in cities around the world, including Internet access, air conditioning, and satellite TV.

Upon our arrival, the bright blue sky that greets us reveals the majestic beauty of the mountain and volcano that dominates a large part of the island for which it is named. The last major eruption occurred here in 1720. The remnants of lava flows from past eruptions are quite apparent and are an integral part of the island’s landscape.

We only have three days to explore Pico, so we arrange for a local guide, Antonio Fernando Garcia (Tel: 962-408-419), to show us what the island offers visitors and to introduce us to its highlights. We also brought my mom with us as an interpreter. As a child, she learned Portuguese by covertly listening to my grandmother and her friends talking to each other (Nana insisted that her family only speak English at home). Later on, my mother perfected her language skills by watching Portuguese soap operas on TV in Massachusetts.

Antonio pulls the car up and is prepared to take us to our hotel, but first we need to explain to my mother’s cousins (who also met us at the airport), that we will not be staying with them. Even though we have never met each other before, they were expecting us to stay with them during our visit. After prolonged negotiations, we assure them that my mother will spend all her free time with them while my partner and I explore the island.

A brief drive from the airport brings us to the Baia da Barca (Lugar da Barca, Madalena. Tel: 292-628-750. www.baiadabarca.com) in the town of Madalena. These recently built tourist apartments provide beautiful ocean views in a dramatic setting with waves crashing against black lava rocks. The spacious accommodations, with a full kitchen, air conditioning, and fireplace, are some of the nicest on the island. After unpacking, we discover that the staff has prepared a light lunch for us and stocked our refrigerator with water. It’s little considerations such as these that we appreciate the most when we travel.

That night, we experience our first taste of Azorean cuisine at O Ancoradouro (Areia Larga, Madalena. Tel: 292-623-490). Typical island dishes here include Bacalhua (cod fish casserole), a great assortment of incredibly fresh seafood, and a variety of meat and pork entrées served with yams. We dine here twice during our stay and the food, combined with the great location by the water, makes this a prime choice.

The next day, Antonio picks us up at the hotel for our tour of the north part of Pico. As we drive along nearly deserted island roads (there are no traffic lights on Pico) the volcanic landscape begins to work its magic on us. The unique geography consists of thousands upon thousands of lava stone walls. In order to plant crops, vineyards, etc. the lava was excavated and utilized to protect the plants from the elements. This fascinating, maze-like patchwork of lava stones is unique to Pico. The areas of Criação Velha and Santa Luzia are the best examples of this art of dividing the fields. Since 2004, “The Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture” has been classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. To truly appreciate this part of the island, there is an excellent walking trail (www.trails-azores.com) that begins at Santa Luzia and takes about three hours. The trail begins as a descent to the sea on a path through a landscape of vineyards that are part of the World Hertiage site. Afterward, head to São Roque do Pico and lunch at Canto do Paco (Rua do Ramal, Roque do Pico. Tel: 292-655-020. www.cantodopaco.com). Designed using black lava stones, this wonderful little restaurant serves a great lunch buffet featuring local specialties for about nine euros. It is here that we have our first taste of a delicious, soft, fresh cheese that is served at every meal in almost every restaurant on the island. It is so light and buttery that we could have eaten it all day, and sometimes we did! It goes great with any of the wines produced on the island.

Continuing our tour, we head east to the town of Piedade (which, coincidentally, was grandmother’s nickname). It was on this part of the island that she grew up in a small house on a hill that led to the sea. The green pasture between her home and the ocean was once filled with gardens and fruit trees that provided her large family with the food they needed.

Unfortunately, because of economic conditions in the early part of the 20th century, many people on the island started emigrating to Brazil or North America. Those who decided to stay had to live off of the sea. Whaling was still an option at the time, but my grandmother told me it was a dangerous and deadly profession that did little to help the whalers and their families. Even though some of the people who left the Azores for America continued to work as whalers, many others sought better alternatives.

Standing outside the family home, gazing at the deep blue sea, I feel a spiritual connection to this island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It is an intergal part of my heart and soul, and possibly a driving force that motivates me to do all I can to protect and preserve the natural resources of our planet for future generations.

In a fascinating and welcome turn of fate, whale watching has become a new tradition and lucrative way of life on Pico. Other sustainable activities that attract visitors from around the world include sailing, kayaking, scuba diving, hiking, and mountain climbing. Anybody can climb the mountain, but it is a demanding trek (the volcano of Pico, at 7,725 feet, is the highest point in Portugal) so it is most appropriate for those who are physically and mentally fit. It is recommended that people be accompanied by a guide if they want to truly appreciate the history of the volcano and the area’s unique flora and fauna. Some guides will arrange a night’s stay at the summit so you can catch the sunset and the first rays of the morning sun. A visit to the lava tunnel of the Gruta das Torres (cave) can be done during the descent. Speleology on Pico is something very special due to past volcanic activity. Caves like those at Frei Matias Silveira and Montanheiros can be explored in the company of a guide and by using proper equipment. For those interested in some less strenuous adventures, bicycle or horse and donkey rides also offer a great way to appreciate the landscape of the island.

CLICK FOR SLIDESHOW OF AZORES
When exploring the south side of Pico, which we do the following day, you will discover Lajes do Pico, the island’s oldest municipality. In addition to several beautiful 17th- and 18th-century buildings, Pico’s first church, the Ermida de São Pedro, dates back to the 15th century and is typical of the stark white and black-edged buildings that are found throughout the island. For whale watching enthusiasts, excellent excursions can be arranged in Lajes do Pico. These include everything from fast-moving Zodiac boats where passengers hold on for dear life, to larger ships with enclosed areas where refreshments are served. More than 30 different species of whale and dolphin can be found in the waters around Pico, including the sperm whale, which was once hunted to near extinction. From the waters off the coast here, the view of the majestic mountain is the most astounding.

The people we meet on Pico, including my mother’s cousins, all seem to have some connection to the United States or Canada. Some had lived or studied in North America, while others have relatives who reside there. The people who returned to Pico express their appreciation for the simple way of life that the island offers. They enjoy the temperate climate, abundance of fresh produce, delicious seafood, and the natural beauty that surrounds them. It is a way of life that modern city dwellers have lost touch with but would definitely benefit from, if only for a week or two each year. My grandmother lived to be 104 years old, while all her sisters and her brother lived well into their 80s or 90s. This is in spite of the fact (or maybe because of it) that their diet is also very high in fat! At every meal, we were served butter, cheese, meat, and bread. Add to this some great desserts, and most cardiologists would be ordering immediate bypass surgery.

There must be something in the local water or wine that counteracts the saturated fats. Maybe, it’s the combination of fresh sea air, an appreciation of nature, and a positive outlook on life that contributes to the longevity of the islanders. Even though I don’t speak Portuguese, and I can’t communicate with most of the people I meet on Pico, they express to me an appreciation for my being there, exploring their island, and enjoying their way of life. Much like I experienced as a child with my grandmother and her friends, they all want to make sure I am happy—and well fed!

The happiness I experienced all centered around the opportunities I had to learn about the island where my grandmother grew up, meeting her relatives, and watching the expressions on my mother’s face as she traveled around and got to know the cousins she had never met. The natural beauty all around me, especially the ocean’s vistas, teeming with whales and dolphins now protected and revered, gave me a sense of hope and adventure, and a feeling of exhilaration.

SÃO MIGUEL
If you appreciate a destination with an abundance of natural beauty, unique cultural attractions, and a European sophistication, São Miguel is a great choice. Known as the Green Island, this is the largest and most populated island of the Azores. Here, you’ll discover many wonderful diversions, whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast or a connoisseur of good food and wine.

Our adventure starts with a drive to the extraordinary mountain lake called Lagoa do Fogo. As the road zig-zags higher and higher, we are privy to spectacular vistas of the island and the sea beneath us. At the highest lookout point, this majestic lake of volcanic origin is truly awe-inspiring. Deserted white sand beaches appear along the shoreline dense with trees and vegetation. Our guide, Luis, tells us that people hike down to some of these apparently inaccessible areas, but check first with your concierge, or consult a local naturalist, before exploring on your own.

Continued

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